Grant Shapps and the death of Hatfield

Grant Shapps, Minister for Housing and Local Government, speaking during the Future of Town Centres and High Streets debate in the House of Commons on the 17th January 2012 –

As I am speaking in this debate, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the wonderful town of Hatfield suffers greatly from the same problems that many Members have described. It was a new town, and so bright was its future when it was set up. Unfortunately, partly because of the situation that has been mentioned—the road and the cars were taken out of the town centre, and the life was sucked out of it—it has struggled to have a renaissance. As the Minister taking the response to the Portas review forward, I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that I have personal experience of a failing town centre that needs to be rescued. That is why I take many of the measures suggested in the review so much to heart. Car parking was the No. 1 concern mentioned by Members in the 54 contributions. It is absolutely right, and in fact quite obvious, to say that in today’s society, when people either do not need to get into their car at all because they can simply click on something with a mouse to buy it or, if the option is available, as it now is in most parts of the country, drive to a shopping mall or shopping centre, an uncompetitive high street with high parking charges will always make a retail district suffer. It is absolutely essential, even in these incredibly tough times, for local authorities to appreciate that hammering the motorist visiting the local shops will not be the solution to the area’s problems, and certainly not to those of retailers.

This is complete gibberish, for several reasons.

Cars have not been ‘taken out’ of Hatfield town centre – if anything, they have been sucked in by a gigantic ASDA superstore, with an enormous car park, built right in the centre of the town, that is – naturally – easily accessible by motor vehicle. Here is a satellite view of  Hatfield town centre.

The pedestrianised centre of Hatfield lies to the upper right. The enormous ASDA supermarket is easily spotted in the centre of the frame, flanked by its large car park to the south-west.

The presence of several large roads in this image also serves to demonstrate that you can drive into Hatfield town centre very easily.

In addition to the parking available at ASDA, there are four council-run car parks in close proximity, around the town centre.

There are several hundred spaces available, in total, in these four car parks. What is more, they are all free, 24 hours a day.

I’m not quite sure on what grounds, then, that Shapps is able to maintain – with a straight face – that the car has been ‘taken out’ of Hatfield town centre, when there are plenty of car parks plastered all over it that are easily accessible; or indeed, how he is able to present the cost of parking as a problem here, when it is free. One could say that his comments are grossly misleading.

You would think he would know better, given that this is his constituency.

It is true, of course, that there are a number of pedestrianised streets and plazas in Hatfield town centre on which you cannot drive your car – the area flanked by the car parks. It is also true that these are the areas which are blighted, and suffering. Shapps is correct when he says that the life has been sucked out of Hatfield town centre. It is dying.

The big colourful billboard overlooking a dismal precinct of crumbling concrete and brick proclaims: “A new town centre for Hatfield.” The remaining shops, surrounding cracked paving stones and pools of water in a large, deserted square, struggle to survive alongside boarded-up and shuttered units. As a testament to the vagaries of 1960s architecture, this is as bad as it gets.

Here is an image of one of these streets

The photographer comments

You would be forgiven for thinking that this photo was taken on a sunday evening but it wasn’t. This was taken at 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon.

Why Shapps thinks the alleged exclusion of the car from Hatfield town centre represents the cause of the problem here is quite unfathomable, because it is beyond simple to park up at a very short distance from these streets, at no cost.

To my mind, the whacking great ASDA dumped a few yards from these shops might be a more obvious reason, a conclusion reached by the same photographer, who again comments

This supermarket dominates the town centre. See other images of this square to get a feel for the impact that it has had.

And if a superstore parked right next door to the town centre retail outlets wasn’t enough of a reason, we also have a gigantic shopping centre on the A1(M) as it flanks Hatfield – the Galleria, which contains an extensive range of all the kinds of shops you find on a typical high street.

It has 1,700 parking spaces, 80 shops, and is less than a mile from Hatfield town centre.

Do you think this might be having an effect?

But Shapps – for some curious reason – fails to mention either the influence the Galleria, or indeed ASDA, might be having on the town centre of Hatfield. Instead, his diagnosis for the decline – the sucking of life from the town centre – is, to repeat,

the road and the cars were taken out of the town centre

Which is, needless to say, a facile, empty-headed analysis, that ignores the fact that cars and roads have not been taken out of the town centre at all, and simultaneously fails to diagnose the real reasons for the decline, namely strategic town planning.

Shapps imagines that allowing cars to drive and park all over the existing pedestrian areas in Hatfield town centre, like that pictured above, represents some kind of ‘solution.’ It cannot be, for precisely the same reason that providing free parking yards away from these shops has not worked. Set against the inertia of a vast shopping centre, and a superstore, the notion that allowing  people to park fractionally closer to these shops, or to drive past them, is going to change anything at all is laughable.

It is car-centric planning that has sucked the life out of Hatfield town centre, not the inability to drive through a handful of pedestrianised streets that already have free car parks right beside them.

Just look at how the life has been ‘sucked out’ of the car-free centre of Groningen

The same sad story in Utrecht

A miserable scene from a car-free street in the Marais district in Paris

What were those crazy Parisians thinking, excluding the car here

This street in my town, Horsham, is clearly lifeless now that car use on it has been restricted

The soulless car-free Market Square in Bruges

The visibly dying car-restricted High Street of Guildford

Et cetera.

Thanks to @John_the_Monkey

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Grant Shapps, Parking, Town planning. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Grant Shapps and the death of Hatfield

  1. Mark says:

    Having spent my entire childhood growing up in Hatfield, and still regularly visit my parents who (for their sins) still live their I think I’m in a good position to comment on why the town centre has died. When I was young the town centre was the focus for all shopping and even a place to meet and hang-out. The car-parks, the same that are their today, were busy, but then the majority of people either walked or cycled into town. Over the years however a number of events have occurred to change this:

    Firstly, the main employer in the area British Aerospace closed down, huge loss of jobs and focus for the entire town.

    We also lost another big employer and the best store in town ‘Woolworth’s’ – which is now the Asda store mentioned, and the car parks around it were always there.

    Then the by-pass tunnel was constructed so that people now don’t even realize that they have passed the historic town of Hatfield.

    Tesco’s moved their store from the town centre to out-of-town by the A1(M) (and the by-pass). This helped them expand their offering effectively killing off the local butchers/green grocers/electric stores etc that where still holding out in the centre. Other large stores followed suit building superstores outside of town.

    Finally, as mentioned in the blog the Galleria opened, this followed similar shopping centre’s constructed in nearby Welwyn GC and St Albans. But the writing was already on the wall for Hatfield “town centre” with it’s rather poor and cheap 1960’s feel to it.

    So no, the removal of cars from Hatfield town centre did not cause it’s death – and it is completely ridiculous to suggest so.

    • Thanks for your comment – I think I’ve only visited Hatfield once,so my knowledge is quite limited, unlike yours. Clearly there are a lot of factors that have taken potential shoppers away from the town centre, while the car parking and access there has stayed relatively constant; it’s therefore quite unreasonable to suppose that the cost and ease of access by car is the issue.

  2. Another great post 🙂 It really is unbelievable how someone trusted with such power can get something as patently obvious as this wrong. But then I suppose NOT sticking up for the “poor hard down by motorist” isn’t going to win him any votes is it?

  3. Angus H says:

    Just a thought – perhaps you can’t lay all the blame at the doors of the planners. Hatfield is a fairly ordinary satellite town, less well-to-do than Guildford or Horsham (or its neighbour St Albans), and certainly not a center of gravity in its own right like Utrecht or Bruges. High street shopping is slower than the supermarket – single working people & couples who both work full-time often don’t have the time to get to the high street during the week (especially if commuting to & from central London by car or rail), & for the most part those are the people with money to spend.

    Doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Shapps is talking rubbish, letting the cars back in wouldn’t fix a thing, but if the powers-that-be are really serious about saving the high street, they need to make it practical for people to shop there – and making it feasible for a family to live comfortably on one or one-and-a-half average incomes (thereby freeing up time for more leisurely shopping) rather than trying to force everyone in to full time work through the tax & benefits system, would go further than transport changes.

    p.s. bit of a nit-pick but your Guildford & Horsham photos don’t indicate weekday or weekend :o)

    • I thought someone might pick me up on that…

      I wasn’t intending to make a straightforward comparison between Hatfield and those cities or towns; I suppose I was trying to demonstrate that removing cars from streets and town/city centres quite obviously does not necessarily result in lifelessness, which is the connection Shapps was making, although as you say these are areas that would doubtless be lively regardless.

      The photo of Guildford was taken during the week; the photograph of Horsham on a Saturday. This photo (of roughly the same spot in Horsham) was taken on a winter weekday.

  4. Mark says:

    Personally what killed Hatfield town centre for me was when they started to crack down on cycling through it! My paper-round started to take much longer.

  5. You’re quite right. The death of our towns isn’t anything to do with not being able to drive up to shops’ front doors (you often walk further in those massive out-of-town warehouses than you would in a town) it’s because the “seed” shops, like supermarkets, that people have to visit regularly, have all moved out for massively cheaper land prices. Shop rents are low out-of-town (and space is plentiful) because it’s further from where people live and work and less convenient to get to.

    If you’re buying your food from Tesco/Asda/Sainbury’s at their massive out-of-town store then you will buy other things while you’re there. Especially since you’ve probably made quite an effort to get there. The size of these warehouses means they can sell almost everything you might need: Tesco and the like have become department stores! [Wikipedia says: “Originally specialising in food and drink, [Tesco] has diversified into areas such as clothing, electronics, financial services, telecoms, home, health, car, dental and pet insurance, retailing and renting DVDs, CDs, music downloads, Internet services and software.”

    If there isn’t a supermarket in the town, you won’t visit the town anything like as often. With fewer people shopping in town, shops can’t afford the rent and close. So there are even fewer reasons to go into town. Vicious circle.

    I mostly blame Tesco. Seriously, I do.

    • Agreed and how many Tesco Express and Sainsbury Local’s are you seeing pop up in small parades of shops? They can easily afford the higher then average rents and still have the retail clout to undercut most local shops.

  6. Paul M says:

    Haslemere’s town centre has been positively impacted by the arival of a new supermarket. When the Co-op bought Somerfield they sold 12 surplus outlets, including Haslemere, to Waitrose. This being leafy south west Surrey, there was much rejoicing and sounding of Volvo horns from residents, but distinct nervousness from small retailers.

    Waitrose, perhaps just another predatory supermarket chain in some respects but still a part of John Lewis, an organisation founded on Quaker principles and a quasi-co-operative, made it clear from the get-go that it did not want to predate on the business of its smaller neighbours. It has accordingly avoided or taken a low-key approach to the fish & meat counters, deli, bakery etc so that those retailers can still breathe.

    It also doesn’t have its own car park, and has to rely on the council car park just behind, but it deducts an allowance for parking from your bill.

    The upshot in fact has been to make the town centre busier, and that car park which only ever used to fill on Saturdays is now choked most of the week. Drivers have to spill out to other car parks a little futher afield (like – 100 yds or so!) Other retailers are thriving, and generally the major issue now seems to be that their landlords are thinking “ker-ching” and jacking up the rents to the point that the smaller tenants can no longer afford them.

    Then a new cloud on the horizon – Surrey CC has increased offstreet car parking charges, and is going to introduce on-street parking charges! The latter will be more expensive than off-street but with no charge if your metered time is less than 30 minutes. The County wants to discourage long-term on-street parking so that casual pop-ins can use the streets.

    No more rejoicing or Volvo horns, but wailing and gnashing of teeth, and wearing of Boden hair-shirts. Residents are up in arms about the charges (that is, residents who don’t actually live on the affected streets). Accusations that Surrey is profiteering (they deny this) and choking off the town by limiting parking (no they aren’t, they are just charging over 30 mins and in any case on-street accounts for less than 10% of available space, of which any that is more than 50 yds away is almost always empty).

    My local councillor, who is now used to being viewed as the Anti-Christ, leapt gratefully on my suggestion – there is almost no cycle parking in the town centre, how about building some more – and has instigated a survey by the highways dept, if only as I suspect to show that he is doing something.

    Come on, we are talking what – 50p – £ 1 per hour? When did you last escape from a supermarket after the weekly shop less than £100 lighter? Having the right change is the only issue, and that could be solved eg by mobile-phone billing

  7. rob says:

    Two points –
    Life is not all about shopping! The town centre will attract people if it has a library, meeting places, coffee shop (not really shopping), cinema, etc, etc.
    Car parking on public space, even on suburban side streets, should be paid for. Why should it be free? If people don’t want to pay then use the space for bike lanes, which is a much more “public” use than private car parking.

  8. Anubeon says:

    Quite how Grant Shapps managed to get it so spectacularly wrong is beyond me. Although my cynicism compels me to suggest that, as a Conservatives, Mr Shapps might well find it impolitic to lay the blame on big business. That said, he missed an opportunity to lay the blame squarely at the foot of a Labour dominated borough council (in power during the run up to the opening of the Galleria). So maybe he’s just thick as pig swill. 😉

    The trouble with Hatfield’s commercial development, in my humble opinion, is one of integration (or rather lack thereof). Compare and contrast Hatfield’s commercial centres with those of her neighbour Welwyn Garden City (of which I am a life long resident). Welwyn Garden City’s Howard Centre was built right on top of the town centre (a top the historic, if a little quaint, railway station) and is comparatively small, and her town centre supermarkets (a recently enlarged Sainsbury’s, a Waitrose and a Marks & Spencers) integrate fairly well with the town centre. In contrast the huge Galleria is a mile out from Hatfield’s town centre and is quite clearly aimed at passing trade from the motorway, and if memory serves ASDA’s main entrance faces (if memory serves) precisely away from the town centre.

    There’s also the question of commercial carrying capacity. Welwyn Garden City has a larger population and is geographically larger. Commensurately, it can support a small shopping mall (The Howard Centre) a couple of medium-large supermarkets (Sainsbury’s and Waitrose) and a couple of out-of-town/edge-of-town supermarkets (Tesco’s and Morrison’s respectively. It’s hart to imagine that Hatfield has the population size to sustain both a traditional high street AND an 85 shop mega-mall (The Galleria).

    Honestly, I can’t see a sustainable way out for Hatfield short of a) Knocking the Galleria down, b) moving the town centre closer to the Galleria and maybe instilling a little café culture therein (as mentioned by rob) or c) drastically expanding the size/population of Hatfield. Even c) requires a significant rethink of the way the town centre is organised and its location.

    Hatfield’s been let down in the most insulting way by successive local governments (both Labour and Hatfield), and now they/we are being served by a apparent nitwit of an MP! I wouldn’t be surprised if there were calls for a complete break with the Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. It’s hard enough dealing with the disparities in the attention (and spending) lavished upon the centre of Welwyn Garden City and ‘the provinces’. Hatfield residents must really, really resent our borough council!

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